By Amber Mann Riggs
As my sighs of longing join in the requiem for a groaning earth, I know I’m not alone. Together, our sighs compose a refrain of a Church who wants our faith to be influential in our culture.
Taking in the world around me, I can’t help but dream of being a conduit of healing and change. I see things that aren’t right with the world, and I want to make them right.
As a Church, we curate idyllic pictures of a more perfect world and then pour our energy and resources into words, ministries, and social media posts that we think will help bring about this reality. And then naturally, we try to quantify our collective righteousness by tallying numbers and gauging power.
Yet as we envision the future, we must consider influential faith as it has been defined by the past.
By many counts, 16th century Western Europe bore significant evidence of the markers and channels of righteousness that we seek in our present culture: a majority of its inhabitants professed to be Christians; their king – the most powerful man in the world – was a professing Christian; the Church’s wealth and land was second only to that of the king; colleges, cathedrals, and hospitals bearing Christ’s name dotted the map; and the culture was relatively peaceful and stable. If the Church sought to quantify its righteousness, surely it needed to point no further than the fruit that was the age of Christendom.
However, deep in the heart of that Christendom lived a man who, though having committed his life to serving Christ, was desperately searching for a different kind of peace – the type of peace that the Apostle Paul professed to have – “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1b). The more Martin Luther devoted himself to achieving righteousness, the more his righteousness paled in comparison to God’s, and the more he suffered the on-going torment of disappointing God. Though Luther was an ardent follower of Christ, he did not have this peace that Paul connected with being “justified through faith” (Romans 5:1a).
A RE-FORMING OF FAITH
Luther began relentlessly meditating on Scripture after memorized Scripture until he put the pieces together of this justification through faith that Paul had spoken of so intimately. But why was it so hard to find? Ironically, it had been obscured by the culture of this supposedly flourishing Christendom. And the sad reality was that this supposedly flourishing Christendom was full of corruption.
Professing the authority of Scripture alone (sola scriptura), he challenged the Church leaders to accept that we are justified through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus) through grace alone (sola gratia) for the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). However, unlike so many Protestants today, Luther didn’t choose to leave his church and begin afresh with a new one. Instead, His heart was to see the church he loved reformed by these truths so that these truths could then permeate the culture with the very atmosphere of God’s Kingdom. Today, these are accepted as the basic tenets of Christianity, but at the time, these teachings were so unsettling that they caused him to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. It became the excommunication heard around the world, and its echoes continue to reverberate.
Five hundred years later, Martin Luther is recognized as one of the most influential figures in history. However, his faith is not only influential because of the impact it continues to have on the world. It is influential because the faith he taught is the only brand of faith that brings the “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” that we long to see saturating our world. It was not only the faith of Luther, but the faith of Paul, Abraham, and the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11.
WHAT THEN IS THIS TYPE OF FAITH, AND HOW CAN WE AFFIRM IT IN OUR OWN LIVES?
1. IT IS A FAITH THAT SEES GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Righteousness – the quality of being morally right – belongs to God alone and does not exist apart from Him. As the Psalmist observed, “Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens, you who have done great things. Who is like you, God?” (Psalm 71:19, NIV)
If we are justified – made morally right – by faith, then it is inherent that we have a revelation of what that moral righteousness looks like as it is defined within God alone and embodied in Christ. Faith contemplates and stands in awe of the breadth and depth of this righteousness.
2. IT IS A FAITH THAT HUMBLY RECEIVES GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS THROUGH CHRIST.
By definition, faith is “the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11: 1a, emphasis mine). If righteousness belongs to God alone, then true righteousness is something that we can only hope for and desire but never possess apart from Him.
This is where faith comes in. Having a revelation of God’s righteousness, we see that we are not righteous, and that we can lay no claim to righteousness. However, in Christ, God tells us that this righteousness that we hope for – and yet had no hope for – is ours as a free gift – a grace – and that it is a free gift that we receive by faith – by believing that He has given it to us while our bodies bear no evidence of this righteousness.
It isn’t easy to declare oneself ungodly, and yet “to the one who…believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5b).
3. IT IS A FAITH THAT INTENTIONALLY WALKS TOWARDS A RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT IS BECOMING OURS.
We are also told that the “righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, emphasis mine). We start off with this righteousness that our bodies bear no evidence of, but faith involves an understanding that this righteousness will one day be a tangible reality that we can see. Faith keeps Christ’s righteousness in front of us and enables us to be transformed by it.
While we often think of salvation in terms of justification, the reality is that the Greek tenses of the word that is translated ‘salvation’ point to a more multifaceted understanding of righteousness: we have been saved (justification), we are being saved (sanctification), and we will be saved (glorification).
The process of sanctification is the component of salvation that involves Christ’s righteousness becoming more and more visible in our lives until the day where we are glorified in His presence.
A FAITH THAT INFLUENCES
Christian influence isn’t about manipulating or ridiculing the world around us until it takes on the appearances of rightness. Rather, the type of influence that moves our world closer to accepting and manifesting God’s righteousness is a byproduct of Christians living by faith. Of our lives bearing testimony of a righteousness that is not our own.
When you became a follower of Christ, you became a leader – a bearer of God’s image entrusted with communicating the righteousness of God. Your influence on this world can’t be measured in terms of the ways that we traditionally define success.
Embrace this influence that comes through faith, and then seek to deepen it. See God’s righteousness, receive it, and then walk towards it in intentionality and grace.